It all started just over three years ago with a camera — and a tree.
The camera was a 60th birthday present. The tree, judging by the size of it, has probably been around about as long as I have, if not longer. Its branches bend over the banks of the river Isen in the Bavarian village where we have lived for seven years.
Call me a creature of habit (and you’d be right), but I love my rituals, one of which is a Sunday morning walk by the Isen. The route varies, but it normally takes me past a huge willow tree, and so the idea was born: to take a photo of the tree at approximately the same time, from approximately the same place, once a week for a year.
“I’ll come to your photo exhibition!” one friend joked, but that was never the intention. The idea was simply to put the new camera through its paces and to add some structure to the weekly walk, not to produce a work for public consumption.
I’ve been taking photos since I was 16, when an elderly neighbour, a former photographer, generously gave me one of his Rolleiflex cameras. It was winter in rural Nova Scotia and I excitedly set off on snowshoes to take photos in the woods behind our house. I used my babysitting money to pay for film and developing, both proud and nervous when I showed the photos to our neighbour. He was kind and encouraging, but pointed out that I could just as easily have used black-and-white film— then considerably cheaper than colour — to photograph scenes consisting of white snow and bare, black trees.
It was advice I followed during the rest of that winter and I thought of it again nearly 50 years later, when I looked at photos taken a year or two ago by the river. It was late November and mistletoe was dotting the leafless branches of a group of oak trees. Against the grey sky and black branches, the mistletoe glows so faintly green that it might just as well have been a black-and-white shot.
Of course, even during that self-imposed year of weekly tree portraits, I took pictures of other things. As a further incentive to complete the project, I began posting photos of my nature walks on Facebook. My Facebook friends are an eclectic crew, with a wide variety of professions and interests, but several of them are nature lovers. I know I can count on them to help identify unusual trees, plants and even the odd unfamiliar bird spotted on my travels.
Indeed, although this pastoral landscape is not the place to look for nature “red in tooth and claw”, there is no shortage of (generally well-behaved) wildlife. We don’t have larks in Nova Scotia, so the first time I saw one was cause for excitement. I have yet to see a cuckoo (only found in clocks back home), but often hear them and still thrill to the sound.
It took some doing, but eventually I did manage to get a few photos of an egret that had been lurking by the Isen for weeks. On another river, the huge Miramichi in New Brunswick, I’d had no such luck, despite trailing a grey heron for what felt like hours, if not days. Perhaps North American birds are more shy of people than their European counterparts — and small wonder, since they don’t see as many.
These days, the Miramichi, where I once lived, worked, and left a piece of my heart, is a place I only visit in my mind. Back in the present, I’m standing by the river, thinking about the giant fish that repeatedly broke the surface in the midst of the lily pads one morning this spring — and wondering if it will reappear. Ditto for the water rat — my Wind in the Willows moment — that disappeared into the bank and hasn’t been seen since, at least not by me. Never mind: the raucous frogs, the coots and eider ducks are all still there.
My weekly excursions are not travel in the conventional sense — there’s no sightseeing, no exploration of unfamiliar territory, and I never go more than a few kilometers away from home. Yet they are a journey of sorts. Through them, I have discovered, and continue to discover, that nature has the power to amaze, to comfort and to strengthen. It is also a path to the past. Every week, I look forward to whatever direction the path takes me.